As the hearse carrying George Floyd pulled up to North Central University, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo tucked his cap into the crook of his arm and dropped to one knee. It was a symbolic gesture of solidarity with a growing movement against police brutality, popularized by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Arradondo has been a visible and vocal presence in the tumult that has engulfed the city and nation since Floyd, a black man, died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day. He condemned and fired the four officers involved. He visited the location where Floyd was killed. He spoke directly to Floyd’s family members on national television. He pledged to cooperate with the state’s probe into his department’s practices and make “substantive policy changes.”
In an interview, Arradondo called Floyd’s death “absolutely pivotal” in the city’s history.
“This moment in time is writing its own chapter in the history of our city,” he said. “The best that I can hope for is that everything that has occurred to this point, all of the work that all of us were trying to do to move forward, it’s not done in vain.”
But the city’s first black police chief now finds himself in a harsh national spotlight, the face of a mostly white department that killed another black man. Last week, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights launched an investigation, and some elected officials are pushing to disband the police department altogether.
Arradondo’s defenders credit his willingness to speak out about the pains of racial trauma and the need for police reform. They say it’s unrealistic to think that he would be able to overturn more than a century of institutionalized racism in just three years on the job.
His chief of staff, Art Knight, agrees that “something has to be done on holding our cops accountable,” but he questioned the timing of the state’s human rights probe.
“When the investigation looks at policy and procedures, we’re 100% completely with them, and maybe they do find something that’s of concern and needs fixing and we’ll work with them to fix it,” Knight said. “When we had white chiefs in office nothing was done, but now that we have the first African-American chief and now you want to sue the department?”
So far Arradondo has drawn praise for quickly firing the officers involved in Floyd’s death. In past scandals, from undercover marijuana stings that critics say unfairly targeted blacks to allegations that his officers were urging paramedics to sedate agitated people, he also acted fast.
But Floyd’s death has City Council members, the MPD and community members grappling over the future of policing in the city.
“We know that a lot of times when you are placed in a role when you’ve got to make systemic change and you’ve got to change the police culture, that does not happen overnight,” said Ramsey County sheriff’s commander Suwana Kirkland, head of the state’s chapter of the National Black Police Association. “Right now, the death of Mr. George Floyd has been devastating to the profession, the community, to his family, to his friends.”
Violent crime has been on the rise since the protests following Floyd’s death, and officers say morale is falling after the torching of the Third Precinct station. Adding to the pressure, a high-ranking police official sent out a departmentwide e-mail suggesting that some officers walked off the job or retired abruptly in protest.
Besides that, Arradondo has faced criticism about the department’s lack of women and people of color and being too slow to discipline officers accused of on-the-job misconduct. In addition, police use-of-force rates — which are greatly affected by call volumes — have risen over the past three years after a long decline, with blacks bearing the brunt in nearly two-thirds of such cases.
Andrea Brown, a public defender who once chaired the Police Conduct Oversight Commission, a department watchdog, said that union boss Lt. Bob Kroll’s defense of the officers involved in the death of Floyd and his public alignment with President Donald Trump damages trust in the MPD.
“I think it completely destroys any reconciliation that could happen,” she said. “The union is real. ... Cops who don’t actually uphold the service and protect for all, they feel like they have its backing.”
Arradondo has been seen as the MPD’s silver lining by the black community. The 53-year-old Minneapolis native joined the force in 1989, starting as a patrol officer in the precinct covering north Minneapolis. He’s remained visible as chief, attending barbecues and basketball games citywide and visiting barbershops. He also talks with unusual bluntness about the historical mistreatment of minorities by police, and in 2007 was one of the lead plaintiffs in a discrimination lawsuit against the department.
But critics say the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on those protesting Floyd’s death is a sign of how little the department’s culture has changed.
They also wonder why Derek Chauvin, the subject of at least 17 civilian complaints and who had been involved with several police shootings, was still working on the same shift. Some claims that the department’s early intervention system — designed to identify potentially troubled officers and get them help — has failed.
And having a black chief didn’t stop officers from using deadly force, said Sam Sanchez, an organizer with the activist group Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar.
“People are talking about rebuilding, but you can’t rebuild something that never worked for the people in the first place,” said Sanchez, pointing out that Arradondo is a product of the same system that he says he wants to reform. He said any proposed reforms in the months ahead should include community input.
Arradondo is also being asked to answer for the strained race relations of past years, says retired Hennepin County Judge Pamela Alexander. While more reform is needed, she says that the department has improved in many ways.
“There are ways to substantially improve the system without totally breaking it down, but it does need to have a broader, more expansive view,” she said. “It’s going to take time and that’s unfortunate, but maybe this crisis will then show [rank-and-file officers] why it’s necessary to have allies in the community and to improve those relationships.”
But there needs to be an honest assessment of how the police can contribute to or harm community health and public safety, said Tabitha Montgomery, executive director of the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association. Not all incidents in south Minneapolis need police intervention, and there should be discussions about finding solutions for other inequities in the area, she said.
“Just the reliance on police is not getting us better outcomes, it’s not driving fewer disparities when it comes to what we are expected to endure in south Minneapolis,” she said. “I have no evidence to suggest there is a further erosion [of trust in police] whether it be black people in the community or other people from other ethnicities and racial groups, but what I do know for sure is ... a life that should’ve been deemed equal to any other was demonstrably illustrated to be less than.”
With the Floyd investigation, people are “looking for a fall guy” with Arradondo, and seek to weaken his power, says Resmaa Menakem, a clinical social worker who has led cultural awareness training sessions with the MPD. He said Arradondo understands better than most of his predecessors that nothing will change until something is done about systemic racism that criminalizes people of color.
“The system is sick, the structure is sick, America is sick — and it stands to reason that if America is sick, the spear and weapon it uses, which is the police department, is also going to be sick,” said Menakem. “It’s not addressing the bad apple cop — it’s addressing the structure that alienates and brutalizes black and brown bodies, and poor white bodies.”
Even after Floyd’s death all is not lost, said Korey “XROSS” Dean Sr., founder and executive director of the Man Up Club, an organization focused on mentoring black males, teaching them about conflict resolution, interactions with the police and civic responsibility.
He still believes in Arradondo, calling him “a good man.” Dean said one of the ways to overhaul the department is to build up its diversity, including encouraging black men like Arradondo to sign up for the police academy.
“I’m optimistic about the future of the relationship between the police and that’s only because of the leadership that I know [Arradondo] has, but at the same time I will say that young black males are still in fear of the police,” Dean said. “That is the current relationship that exists between young black males in the inner city and the police department, and there is no relationship there.”
Staff writers Jeff Hargarten and Liz Navratil contributed to this report.